Battling Breast Cancer – From Fear to Courage: How I Am Today

My oncologist proposed a fourth treatment in her plan– a hormone-blocking drug, also known as an aromatase inhibitor. She wanted me to start taking the drug after radiation ended and continue for five years. Side effects included bone loss, joint pain, insomnia, and raging hot flashes — none of which would have been good for my tennis and overall health.

I had a bone density baseline test done as I considered this drug treatment.  After giving it a lot of thought, I asked my doctor what was the plan after I finish taking the drug. The disturbing response:  we’d watch to see if my mammograms stayed clear and if I developed pain somewhere. So, basically there was no medical plan beyond five years.  I did some research and found that broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kale, and even grape juice are aromatase inhibitors, like the drug. There are also supplements that provide similar, though probably not as powerful, protection. The supplements, though, would not cause side effects like the drug.  So, I declined the drug and focused on managing my diet and stress.

People have asked me if I’m in remission, and I never quite know what to say. I don’t claim to be cured because the cancer cells were invasive. But, I don’t view myself as a time bomb either.

I had my oncology exam at the six year mark. I was supposed to have had my last exam in 2013, as I did with my surgeon, but my oncologist wanted to see me again the next year.  She told me that studies show the hormone-blocking drug is now effective for 10 years. I still declined — No, thank you. She asked if I want her to examine me for another four years. I said yes. Western medicine saved me. And, I’m betting that my plan to support my body through alternative therapies and whole foods will keep me alive and healthy.

Early on, I was ultra-conscious of the lymphedema risk to my right arm from cuts, bug and animal bites, burns, etc. So guess what happened? The more I worried about it, the more things happened that I didn’t want to happen. For instance, I had my first bee sting. Where? On my right shoulder, of course, as I was coming off a tennis court. I’ve also burned my right arm on the oven a couple of times; a rogue dog bit me and pierced the skin on my right wrist; and I had a crazy case of hives only on my right arm after eating bread pudding.

When I’ve thought about it, I’ve let friends know that if I become unconscious for some reason, they are not to let medical personnel take my blood pressure or draw blood from my right arm. I wear a compression sleeve and glove on long flights, along with a medical bracelet. Otherwise, I do not obsess over my right arm.

I still have acupuncture treatments every other week and take Chinese herbs twice a day. I get additional treatments if I’m under a lot of stress. Cancer is not staring me right in the face now, but it’s not in the rear view mirror, either. I keep it in my peripheral vision. I am a breast cancer survivor and a tennis player. I have no physical limitations and am as athletic as ever. I am also a work in progress when it comes to staying healthy and having a balanced life.

 

2013-05-06 16.48.21

 

 

 

 

 

Battling Breast Cancer Series – The End


Battling Breast Cancer – From Fear to Courage: Radiation

I was so tired of being in treatment, but radiation was next. I had been slashed and poisoned, and now it was time to burn.

I received two key recommendations. The first was from my friend, Linda, who suggested I work with Dr. Yi Ping Hu, a licensed acupuncturist in Bethesda, Maryland. She has many cancer patients and treats the immune system. The second came from my chiropractor, Dr. Six, who recommended I take holy basil supplements during radiation.

Before starting the next phase, I took a mini-break. I celebrated the end of chemo with my sister, Cheryl, and our niece, Emily, from New York. We hiked Sugarloaf Mountain in Dickerson, Maryland. I had no doubt that I could hang on the hike, and my anemia didn’t pose a problem. We had fun!

Dr. Hu examined me the following week and said I had some weakness, but was remarkably strong for having just finished chemo. She wanted me to have acupuncture twice a week before starting radiation. She also gave me Chinese herbs to drink twice a day. I held my nose when I drank the nasty-tasting mushroom brew. Dr. Hu’s treatment was supposed to strengthen my immune system —  the body’s natural defense to disease.

My radiation oncologist proposed the radiation treatment field and explained I’d have a higher risk of lymphedema from radiation in certain areas of my chest.  Because of that risk, I told her I didn’t want radiation in those areas.  I didn’t want to risk my tennis game, you know. The doctor outlined the areas I consented to with tattoos.

Radiation was the treatment with the least apparent side effects. I was zapped five times a week for eight weeks. Each treatment took about 10 minutes. The doctor prescribed a cream to soothe my skin in case of burns. The health care provider’s literature on radiation warned about fatigue.

Here’s what happened (and didn’t happen):  I was never fatigued and, in fact, started playing league tennis again. My skin was deeply tanned in the radiation field, but didn’t burn, so I never filled the skin cream prescription. Over time, though, I realized the pain and tightness I felt somewhere between my right armpit and back ribs was caused by scar tissue from radiation. I massaged the area to break down the scar tissue; and I used yoga and other exercises to keep my right arm flexible. To this day, the area can feel tight and painful.

After radiation ended, Dr. Hu scaled back my acupuncture treatments to once a week for six months. After that, I went to acupuncture every other week. I also continued to take the Chinese herbs twice a day.

My surgeon made an awesome observation. When she examined me, she said my breast didn’t feel like it had been treated with radiation. I asked, “What should it have felt like?” She told me a radiated breast would would usually feel kind of hard and tough. To the contrary, mine is quite soft and pliable.

Could it be that acupuncture, yoga, and the supplements helped?

39320058 copy

Next:  Battling Breast Cancer – From Fear to Courage: How I Am Today


Refuge

I found an ad in the newspaper for a yoga class for breast cancer survivors. It was what I’d been looking for — a specialized class for the lymphedema risk and other issues caused by cancer treatment. At Circle Yoga in Washington, D.C., I found my support group.

Two instructors, Jill and Karen, alternated teaching Yoga for Breast Cancer. I was the last to join the class and started between surgery and chemo. The other women were way ahead of me in treatment. All were mothers of young children, and between 38 and 41 years old. Jill and Karen began each class with a thoughtful meditation. They allowed us to take a moment to say what was on our minds. They asked what we needed from the yoga practice. And what we needed to let go, if only for a little while.

At one class, I shared that, to friends, family, and co-workers, I appeared strong, independent and capable. But, I was starting to have meltdowns. I was tired. I was tired of focusing on that outward appearance. I knew I needed a break of some sort, but didn’t know who to ask or what I needed. I just wanted a break. The other women said they hit that wall, too — around the sixth chemo session.

Circle Yoga was my refuge. This yoga class was as important to me as any medical appointment. I relaxed and let the meditation transport me. I was with other survivors getting my warrior poses on. Jill and Karen continued the class faithfully each week, even when I was the only student left.

39320049 copy


The Sister’s Perspective: Cushioning the Blow

I don’t remember what I said when my sister, Kim, first told me of her breast cancer diagnosis.  For sure, I knew there was nothing I could do to fix her.  Certainly, I had no original thoughts about her crisis.  So, I listened to her strategy for beating cancer by taking charge of her own health and learning as much as she could about the disease and its triggers for her body.  This was her search and vanquish mission.  Kim’s doctors were merely staff.

Maintaining a positive attitude, along with being proactive, was the approach my sister chose; and a supporter could do no less.  So, what can you do for someone who appears to have it all together?  My first inspiration came shortly after Kim’s surgery.  She needed to cushion and protect the area just under the incisions below her armpit.  I went home thinking about a way to make her more comfortable and less afraid of disturbing the drainage tube and triggering  lymphedema.

After a bit of internet research, I found that what she needed was a pillow shaped like a half moon. Good start, but who wants to carry a pillow everywhere all day long?  So, I added a shoulder strap exactly like one on a shoulder bag.  We’re close to the same height, so I measured the strap length and size of the pillow on myself and drew a pattern.  The rest was easy—picking pretty, cheerful fabric, pinning, cutting and sewing.

By day two of her recovery from surgery, I delivered the zingy pink and green pillow to Kim.  No one has a bigger grin than Kim when she’s surprised or delighted with something.  The pillow was a huge success!

Logo bigger final

 

 


Battling Breast Cancer – From Fear to Courage: The Surgery

I’m a tennis player. I love the sport and play in USTA tennis leagues. I couldn’t believe it when my surgeon described to me another surgical procedure that would threaten my ability to play tennis with my dominant arm.

Prior to and during the lumpectomy, there were a lot of “ifs.”  The one that concerned me most was if cancer cells had entered the sentinel node, my surgeon would do an axillary lymph node dissection.  The dissection involves scooping out lymph nodes under the armpit and testing them for cancer.  The procedure would leave my arm forever at risk of lymphedema.  My surgeon would find out what she needed to know through surgery pathology reports.

The Nightmare Scenario:  pumping fluid daily from a perpetually swollen arm, having limited arm mobility, and wearing a compression sleeve and glove 24/7.

My health care provider’s literature explained that lymphedema may not affect everyone or be immediately present. Lymphedema could be triggered by trauma to the arm, like bug and animal bites, bone breaks, surgery, needles, and using a blood pressure cuff. The literature also said playing tennis is not recommended because of the arm’s repetitive motions. And neither is weight-bearing exercise, like yoga or pushups. I thought, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding!  Those are the things I do!’

So, I zeroed in on what I really cared about. Let’s see:  the tumor was in my right breast, I am a right-handed tennis player, and I might have to quit my sport?  My common sense overrode the health care provider’s recommendation about tennis being a risk. I was not a novice tennis player. Muscle memory is real and I’d been playing tennis for years. In fact, I played up until the night before the surgery.

I prayed I wouldn’t have to have the lymph node procedure. I stayed positive.

Before leaving for the hospital, my boyfriend and I danced in the kitchen to my new anthems, “Just Fine” by Mary J. Blige and “I Am Not My Hair” by India Arie. My priest met my family and me at the hospital and prayed with us. It was a long day of surgical prep, the longest and most painful mammogram ever, pathology tests, and waiting.

I remember waving to my peeps as I was rolled into surgery, but nothing else before going under anesthesia. When I came out of it, my surgeon was talking to me. It was like an out of body experience. She said cancer cells were detected in the sentinel node, so she did a lymph node procedure.

Oh, crap.

I never could bring myself to look at the surgery incisions or where the drainage tube came out the side of my body. But I woke up many times every night over the next few weeks  to see if my arm had blown up and to check it for any changes. All I could think was whether I’d be able to play tennis again. Tennis was my motivation for getting healthy.

Logo bigger final